Keyword: Faith

This is one in a series of lexical entries, or keywords, written by the “Religion, Secularism and Political Belonging” project. To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here.

When asked to explain “time,” Saint Augustine famously said: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” This “explanation” rings true when one wishes to explain “faith” as well. In fact, it rings even truer when one wishes to consider how faith inspires political belonging in the modern world.

It has been common, in monotheistic traditions over the past 250 years, to think of two main dynamics through which faith engenders political belonging: universalism and ideology. Perhaps we could think of these two ways as two attempts at a definition of truth, each validated by the act of believing. This act creates a place for these two truths in the world, reinforces them and manifests them in their purest form. Faith is the phronesis of both ideological truth and universal truth, the quality which, through practice, establishes real and binding concepts of right and wrong.

Universalism is predicated by the abstract, inviolate and sovereign individual subject. Universal status can be safely accorded only to abstractions, to existence steeped in solitude. An individual is defined by the sphere which marks her inviolability rather than by the possession of a clearly defined trait or conviction. One of the first freedoms such an individual enjoys is the freedom to believe; indeed, modern thought is premised on the understanding of religion qua faith, as it allows the exercise of religion within the liberal framework of “the freedom of belief.” This freedom is also a necessity, for without a leap of faith the existence of other members in a political community (all sovereign individuals) would be dubious at best. In order to belong, one must believe; or yet, in order to belong, one can believe one does not believe at all. In both cases, one acknowledges one’s own freedom to believe, and through it, the universality of the individual capacity to believe. This faith must be transubstantiated into conviction, lest the universal turn into the always-already flawed, the contextual. Faith allows an individual to forego her shuttered existence, even if she can only fly upward and outward on the wings of belief. From her vantage point above she can verify, or more securely believe, that others such as her do exist.

The truth of ideology does battle with the realness of reality. An ideology dismantles this realness, the mass quality of existence, in favor of a vision of reality which claims to be “historically bound,” “cost effective,” “benefit maximizing,” and so on and so forth. Existing reality is shown to be securely “happening” within one of two vectors. Reality may simply be the progression of humanity (or a people, or class), beginning from a fixed point far in the past and due to culminate in the less-than-foreseeable future. Reality may also (just as simply) reflect the straying of humanity from its proper path, the subversion and deterioration of a proper reality which must be restored and revalidated. The truth of ideology is the truth of obedience to a vision at odds with things as they are. Faith in the alternative is necessary for it to successfully sweep reality aside. There is no difference if such sweeping is corrective (redirecting strays) or progressive (moving along at the required pace). Persons, societies even, must believe that what they know is not right or sufficient. They must also believe with all their hearts that something else is required, and that they must devote themselves wholeheartedly to the realization of this “something”. Faith in ideological truth enables political belonging through obedience. In contrast to universalist faith, ideological faith is not freedom. It is an essential requirement. It is a harness, but it is also a motor.

Both of these truths, the universalist and the ideological, are modernist truths. They are two ways of defining the modern subject – the subject of (the universal subject) and the subject to (the ideological subject) – the Janus face of subjectivization (or assujetissement) which portrays the twofold relationship of the subject to truth. Returning to Augustine, proponents of these truths do not know how to explain them, least of all as creators of political belonging. These truths must be accepted as utter truths in order to be true. Faith is either extrapolation or obedience. In both cases, it inspires belonging by default by recognizing hierarchies of being which automatically negate one’s own. With universalism, a sovereign believing subject must come to terms with unshakable loneliness along with unending (and incommunicable) similarity. In the case of ideology, the believing subject must obey the dictate of doing away with reality itself in favor of a new and improved version. The first is the work of the Self (vis-à-vis other selves); the second, is the work of the Other (through the Self’s complex appeal to it).

Universalism and ideology define a spectrum of political belonging currently created or accessed through faith. Is there a way out of this dichotomy between the two poles? What middle ground stretches between them? We can assume that within this middle ground the instrumentalization of faith is diminished. Unlike the high ground of the ends, within the middle ground faith is not a vessel for inviolable individual sovereignty or an optimal reality (both abstract by definition).

Middle ground faith imbues what is, and is imbued by that which is. This dual relationship allows it to escape the deepest pitfall of the real—succumbing to a static vision of being. It aims to escape the polarization between faith as the fully internal (placed within the self’s interior) and faith as the necessarily external (the outside of ideology); between consciousness and practice. For believers who do not opt for either universalism or ideology, faith is an axis. It occurs and is performed in the world, and as such is both social and grounded in difference. Simultaneously, faith acknowledges and affirms the existence of larger truths, of realness as a continuum. Ensuing political belonging thus takes place in two dimensions at the very least, or more likely in two (to the second power) dimensions. No clear hierarchy exists between abstract principles and concrete practices. When neither is avoidable or deniable, both become desirable.

As suggested above, the real challenge offered by middle ground faith is a challenge of reacquisition. Before the advent of the political as abstract/concrete, political belonging was a demonstration of actuality rather than a paean to possibility. Its double mode of being was the gold standard of ethics and institutions. The desire to set back the clock is, of course, the epitome of empty modernity. One cannot renege on history. Still, the syntax of middle ground faith persists. The resurgence of theological politics has recast this middle ground syntax as a potent generator of power and belonging, confusing a “West” addicted to universalism and ideology. Engagement with this new/old sense of political belonging is essential for effective policy. The barren ends of ideology and universalism grow less and less alluring for more and more people. Belonging as an axis, a multitude of political voices and dimensions, these offer a real chance for (dare we say it?) redemption.